ATLANTA (AP) — Sonny Perdue stopped by the Georgia capitol on Friday on the morning of his 50th wedding anniversary to pick up some jewelry – his medallion of office — as he was officially invested as chancellor of the University System of Georgia while declaring his goal that the system be recognized as the best in the nation.
“Georgia’s public colleges and universities open the door of opportunity for everyone, and they provide great value to the state of Georgia,” Perdue said in a speech, citing distinguished graduates of even less well-known institutions like Dalton State College and Columbus State University.
Gov. Brian Kemp, House Speaker David Ralston and others saluted the former two-term governor and U.S. agriculture secretary at the ceremony, which came after regents chose Perdue in March to lead the 340,000-student system.
Kemp, university system leaders and others lavished praise on Perdue with tributes to his prior career as a state senator and Georgia’s first modern-day Republican governor.
“After all that he has done, the man has nothing left to prove, but yet here he is,” said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton, who was a lawyer for Perdue and appointed by Perdue to the state high court.
Perdue, 75, took over in April only after Kemp realigned the 19-member Board of Regents to remove several regents who had stalled the appointment for months. Some students and faculty opposed Perdue as unqualified for the position.
He’s being paid $523,900 a year to oversee 26 universities and colleges that spend a collective $9.2 billion, including $3.12 billion in state tax money and $3.13 billion in student tuition.
The new chancellor calls his position “maybe the most impactful job I’ve ever had.” He has signaled continuity with key policies pushed by former Chancellor Steve Wrigley, including guiding students to progress toward degrees and graduate on time, as well as holding down tuition.
Perdue presided over years of belt-tightening as governor, but takes the reins of the sprawling university system at a time when state budgets are fat. Lawmakers sent the universities $230 million to roll back student costs by an average of 7.6% this fall, eliminating a special institutional fee that schools had been charging atop tuition for more than a decade.
“The Board of Regents is committed to keeping costs low as the best way for them to complete a degree,” Perdue said. “Inexpensive does not mean inferior. It means value.”
But Perdue faces the challenge of declining enrollment at a number of smaller regional institutions. He announced earlier this week that 24 of the 26 institutions will again waive SAT and ACT test scores for students being admitted in 2023. The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech will be the only exceptions.
A native of the middle Georgia town of Bonaire, Perdue earned a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Georgia. Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera gave Perdue a tie that includes colors of all the system’s schools, telling Perdue he will “no longer have to worry about playing favorites when you get dressed for work.”
Perdue’s biggest new initiative so far has been seeking more data to guide decisions for the sprawling system. He said that’s key to spurring further improvements.
“Remember, I may not look like it, but I’m a facts-based data geek,” Perdue said.
He also said publishing more data will boost public confidence in the system at a time when some question the politics of universities and some high school students are choosing to go straight into a job market starved for workers.
“We want to be trustworthy,” Perdue said.” We want to earn the public’s trust, and that means being willing to hold ourselves accountable.”
Perdue also says he wants to do more to keep students from leaving the state to seek an education.
“Now I feel like I’ve become a possessive grandpa,” he said. “I don’t want any of them to think they need to leave the state to get a good education.”